It might surprise those who find it boring, but Charles Burnett's "Killer of Sheep" deserves at least two viewings in its new DVD format. This monument to independent filmmaking, screened at the James River Film Festival in the spring, benefits greatly from the commentary track by Burnett and film historian Richard Pe¤a. I would add a third viewing, after hearing the commentary, in order to see the film with all its context and background intact, but only for those of you moved by the intensity of the film's implications for contemporary social policy and politics, which are many.
It's astounding to hear Burnett talk about how the neighborhood depicted in "Sheep" was more hopeful then than now. The 30-year-old film, which did not receive proper distribution until this year, depicts black life in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles during the early 1970s in a style similar to Italian neorealism. It opens with children playing in a dusty rail yard bordered by run-down and abandoned houses. Hardly a home visited has suitable furniture. The main character, Stan (Henry Gayle Sanders), a slaughterhouse worker, is considered well-to-do despite his hellish occupation. He's not poor, he insists. "Eating wild onions picked out of a vacant lot," he declares -- that's poor.
"Sheep" centers on Stan and the Watts neighborhood he's trapped in, but it contains only what could loosely be called a plot. The movie doesn't follow Stan as much as make him symbolic of a group teetering between hopefulness and destruction. Burnett shot the film over a year as his thesis for UCLA, using nonprofessional actors but adding an unusual number of popular songs for a student film. The result is an intensely realistic depiction of a specific time and place coupled with a dreamlike reflection on it. There's nothing like it at the box office, and it should be seen again and again. (NR)